My fondness for camping ebbs and flow. In the midst of the experience, I have issues — like cleaning my contacts, a fear of spiders and my preference for flush toilets. Over time, these inconveniences fade and the memories of nature and camaraderie remain.
So when we went looking for affordable accommodations on what can be a very expensive Caribbean island, Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds sounded appealing. Situated in the Virgin Islands National Park, Cinnamon Bay is a gorgeous stretch of beach on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Located off Northshore Road, Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds is on the island’s longest beach and has its own restaurant, grocery store and water sports rentals. We have camped in national parks before, but this was camping in paradise.
The campgrounds has three types of lodging: cement cottages with electricity, tent sites and bare sites, where guests bring all their own equipment. We chose a tented site because everything we needed would be provided for us. This proved worthwhile, because a snowstorm in Atlanta delayed our arrival until just before the campground’s lodge closed at 8 p.m. At our tent we found a propane stove and a lantern with a book of matches, although the tropical humidity rendered those matches useless. Good thing my husband thought to pack our head lamps. Our linens and towels were stacked on a cot inside, along with an ice chest and a storage box containing cooking gear. Between arriving late and the damp matches, dinner at the campground’s restaurant was a no-brainer.
Our military green tent was a roomy 10×14 feet with four cots. The roominess was welcome, since we shared the tent with a spider that had made its webby home in a corner. I reassured myself that the spider would eat the insects that came inside through several holes in the tent screens. In case the spider couldn’t keep up, we doused ourselves with insect repellent before going to sleep. I also wrapped myself in the bed sheet despite the tropical air, just in case the spider decided to drop down from its corner.
The long, hot night was cut short, however, by the island’s garbage truck. It awakened us at the darkest of hours while backing into the lodge’s rear entrance. Beeeep, beeeep, beeeep, beeeep. Headlights burned through our tent. Apparently they were unaware of the camp’s quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.
The campgrounds has multiple bathhouses with flush toilets (hallelujah!) filled with rust-color water (eeeew!). The hand-pulled showers had unheated water, rather refreshing on a hot, muggy island. Early in the morning and late at night I had the bathhouse to myself. Mid-afternoons it bustled, as tourists used it before going back to their resorts or cruise ships. Fellow campers I met during those quiet hours had all stayed at Cinnamon Bay before, some going back several years with their entire families. For them, staying on a Caribbean island for less than $100 a night was well worth the nuisances of camping. I decided to make peace with the spider.
Meeting happy campers made us curious to investigate the rest of the campgrounds. We discovered our problems were not necessarily the tent, but rather its location. Our site was farthest from the beach and closest to the lodge, hence our nightly garbage truck encounters. Being buried in the trees on the side of a steep hill didn’t help, either. We climbed four wooden steps to our tent, and our precariously perched picnic table needed bricks to keep it from rolling away. Down the path, tents were on more level ground. Adding insult to injury, these tents looked brand new, compared to our beat up canvas. The bare sites had the best locations of all — 13 had beach access through trails cut into the shrubbery.
St. John is a national park for a reason, and we enjoyed the natural beauty it offers. We hiked the Cinnamon Bay Trail, which starts at sugar plantation ruins near the campground’s entrance. The Park Service holds nightly ranger talks with a slideshow at the campground’s outdoor amphitheater. We attended the popular Camp Critters lecture one night. Ranger Diane explained St. John wildlife, from the smallest of insects to the free-range deer brought over by the Dutch. We joked that we had already seen most of these creatures. The scorpion on our window screen was especially enlightening.
Something not encountered in most mainland national parks is the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, which protects the amazing reefs that surround Cinnamon Cay, an islet just offshore. We spent an entire afternoon snorkeling around the cay viewing sting rays, colorful fish and a sea turtle.
Our Caribbean adventure was like any camping trip — full of mosquitoes, rock-hard cots, no temperature control and suspect plumbing, but those annoyances dissipated when I returned home. Instead, I mused about the morning we spied island deer foraging through the trees, dreamed of the tree frog chirps that lulled me to sleep and reminisced about our nightly walks on a silver beach during the full moon. I told all who would listen we camped in the Virgin Islands.
“Really, and how was that?” they asked.
“Depends on how much you like camping,” I replied.
Even in paradise, camping is still camping.
If You Go
For more information, visit the National Park Service website, www.nps.gov. For campground information, visit www.cinnamonbay.com. To make reservations, call the campground’s main office, 340-776-6330 or 340-693-5654, or e-mail email@example.com
Carrie Dow is a freelance writer who lives in Lakewood, Colorado. She has been published in Islands Magazine and International Living. She has two pet-centric columns at examiner.com. She recently published her first children’s book, “Morning, Miss Moo,” about her ornery black and white cat. The book is available at amazon.com and in Denver at Barnes and Noble and the Tattered Cover book stores.